The phrase “small town life” could be interpreted in two ways. Are we talking life in a small town, or are we talking about a small life in town? As a member of a community built around a town of 200 people, I believe I am familiar with both views.
A rural area is not a requirement to lead a small life. Small lives are lived throughout the world. Those people we perceive as leading small lives seem to be fairly pleased with their life choices and their complaints seem to reflect the human condition, small lives or not.
We have a museum in our community and over the years, artifacts arrive on an occasional basis. Many of them have names on them and, in a town in 200, most of the names are familiar. Mixed in with advertising pieces and family treasures are newspaper clippings from years ago. Most of the people linked to the items are long gone. That is why we have a museum.
One of the best parts is when a name will provoke a story, a story that might be otherwise forgotten if not for the jarring of the memory by the relic on display. These are the word-of-mouth stories. They are told because we want to believe they are true or as close to true as possible.
Most of the time the story ends with a good laugh and what better reason to keep these assorted refugees from a garage sale on display to be seen by the public. Visiting our museum is like a tour through the town’s attic.
Every community has its cast of characters whether it’s a small town or a neighborhood. There are people who seemed to be destined to be characters in life and years after their death are talked about with affection and even some reverence. Their deeds are kept alive through oral storytelling.
One such individual in our town was Henry Doebel, who was the town repairman and an independent businessman, in that order. Henry’s independence was as legendary as his single-mindedness. There was only one way to do things and that was Henry’s way.
He took great pride in his work and was especially proud in his ability to salvage something that was otherwise deemed as irreparable. People knew that if you told Henry you needed a repair done right away, it would go to the bottom of the pile and stay there until he was ready.
It was more effective to show Henry the broken piece and tell him you are getting ready to throw it away because it does not look repairable. Hearing that, Henry was liable to tell you to come back in a couple hours. Upon returning, it would be repaired.
Henry also had the reputation of being able to repair a leaky gas tank by welding it. In the 1970s I had a car with a leak in the gas tank and Henry, who should have retired by then, but still showed up for work everyday, was willing to repair it. I figured if Henry was brave enough to weld a gas tank, I was brave enough to stand beside him and watch. I drove my car home with its fuel tank repaired.
I have been told that there was at least one occasion when Henry’s tank repairs did not go as planned and he had to replace the blown out windows in his shop.
It was my dad who told me my favorite story about Henry Doebel. About 75 years ago when Doebel was fire chief, the town’s new fire truck arrived with the letters “H.F.D.” painted on each side of the hood. A few people were angry he had the boldness to put his initials on the town fire truck.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and said the letters stood for Hanlontown Fire Department and besides, Henry’s middle initial was “W.”
That is small town life and it is on display in our museum. You will have to wait to hear the stories, but most of them are worth the wait.
Rye is a Farm News staff writer and farmer from Hanlontown. Reach him by e-mail at email@example.com
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